Jul 18 2011 10:31am

Review: All Clear by Connie Willis

All Clear by Connie WillisThis week we’re looking at the 2011 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel. You’ll be able to find all the posts in this ongoing series here.

After years of successful research expeditions to the past, of observing everything from the layout of Coventry Cathedral to an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1348, a group of Oxford history students travels back in time to study World War II...and finds itself trapped in the twentieth century.

In Blackout and All Clear (Subterreanean Press) these students seek a way back to their home time amid the dangers of war-era London: nightly air raids by the Luftwaffe, neighbors who could denounce them at any moment as spies, leaky boats at Dunkirk or even the primitive—by their standards—medical procedures of the time.

Eight years in the writing, the conclusion to this two-volume Connie Willis novel centers on three students who managed  to locate each other in London during the Blitz. Polly Churchill, Mike Davies, and Merope Ward all set out in search of each other because they hoped to find an alternate route home. Now, having discovered they are all stranded, the trio widens its search, beating the bushes for any other historians who might be researching World War II. This already-tricky task is made harder by the fact that students aren’t briefed on each others’ missions, and routinely employ cover names to do their work; Merope has been living as Eileen O’Reilly, for example. But they dare not passively wait for rescue.

Polly’s previous studies have taken her to end of the war. Since a person cannot exist in two places at the same time, Polly will die if she is still in the past when peace comes.

I finished All Clear at my optometrist’s office while I was waiting on those drops they give you to super-dilate your pupils. The drops played havoc with my vision, but after following these young historians through years of war, bombings, and deprivation, I had to know their ultimate fate. I was hooked, in other words: the book had utterly drawn me in. The total commitment to its outcome, with comical shifting around of the book so I could read it with my impaired eyes, was certainly a contrast to how I felt going in. Reading half of a book in February and then coming to the end of it six months later, obviously, wasn’t ideal. Now that both halves of the book are out, I strongly recommend reading them back to back.

That said, there was no question of my not sticking with All Clear. I have been a devoted follower of the Oxford time travel stories since “Fire Watch” in 1983, and of all things Willis for about as long.

One of the pleasures of this novel is the cobweb-thin strands that connect it to all of Willis’s previous World War II missions. Polly, Mike and Merope go looking for the protagonist of “Fire Watch,” for example, and even consider young Mr. Dunworthy as a possible resource to them in getting home. Colin, one of the delights of the mournful Doomsday Book, is a bright light in this novel, too. The book binds all these stories, comic and tragic, into a pleasingly unified whole.

All Clear has the impartial carnage one might expect from its setting, not to mention from the author of Lincoln’s Dreams and Doomsday Book. But it is a celebration, too, of courage and heroism, of perseverance, of ordinary people doing small things to aid in great causes, of devotion, friendship, keeping one’s word. It has funny characters and laugh out loud moments aplenty, but it is no wacky romp, this book, no To Say Nothing of the Dog. At the same time, I found it funnier and, strangely, cheerier than previous Willis novels with a comparable body count.

Like the aforementioned books, this one is an intricate puzzle, to the reader and its primary characters alike. The trapped historians in All Clear spend a goodly amount of time trying to sort out what they know for sure, what they suppose, what they hope and—most of all—what they fear. When did this bomb drop, and are they safe tonight? Might there be a historian observing the Allied code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park? As their residence in besieged London stretches for months, as Polly’s deadline approaches and each of them makes new acquaintances and affects the lives of local residents, each worries that they’ve broken the temporal continuum somehow, possibly so much so that they’ve altered the outcome of the war.

Both volumes of this book, in other words, have a lot of interior monologue. Polly, Mike and Merope have nobody to confide in but each other. They can’t risk being overheard discussing future events: what’s more, they’re constantly lying to one another in well-intended attempts to protect each other from bad when Polly, for example, tries to hide the fact that she’s under a death sentence. There is no shortage of action, but there are moments when it is masked, when the story seems to be playing out entirely in the characters’ heads.

I saw a blog entry the other day, by a reader who said she’d come to know a given author’s “formulas.” It’s an apt phrase, and as someone who’s been reading Connie Willis for over twenty years, I was dead certain I could do the math on her plot, that I knew how the mystery in All Clear would play out. What’s more, I was right...about the first thing. But then there was a delightful revelation I hadn’t seen coming. Then another...and another. Like little narrative bombs, they went off each time I let my guard down.

Willis isn’t just playing with the same old formulas, in other words: she’s still growing as a storyteller and finding ever more powerful ways to blow readers off their feet.

The conversation on Blackout/All Clear continues on Jo Walton’s post here!

A.M. Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.

Michael Walsh
1. MichaelWalsh
For those who might want to consider Blackout/All Clear for a Hugo ... remember: it's a novel in two parts. I suspect putting "Blackout/All Clear" on the ballot would work.
S. S. White
2. S. S. White
You credit Blackout/All Clear to Subterreanan, but what about Spectra, the original publisher? I'm assuming the credit's given to the specific editions you read, but it always irks me to have simultaneous publications of the same book by different publishers. Great money for the author, I'm sure, but who gets first rights credit? And in the case of reviews, well, should you only acknowledge the version you read or make sure readers know of the other publisher?

With actual reprints, it's not that big of a deal, but I guess what's why I'm always so confused with Subterranean. They often publish new releases as limited editions shortly or simultaneous to the release date. :-/
S. S. White
3. Karen Coyle
I loved Blackout/All Clear, like I've loved pretty much all of Connie Willis' stuff, but I do heartily second that recommendation to read the two back to back. With all the shifting around from one time period to another, and one cover identity to another, it can be awfully difficult to remember who is where (and when) and why they're doing what they're doing!
The detail about WW2 Britain is fantastic, and the plot wraps all it's lines together into an intricate knot at the end, really cool twists! I still have to say "Doomsday Book" is my favorite of hers, for sheer emotional intensity - but this duo is a very close second.
S. S. White
4. leewsftv
The Subterranean Press edition of Blackout is sold out at the publisher, so geting the first half of the Subterranean edition is a bit problematic at this point. For those in the UK who haven't obtained the US edition from Spectra, Gollancz will be issuing the books next year (with some possible small changes since the books are now beeing looked over by a UK based editor).

Also, as noted in the review, the events in the original short story Fire Watch are referenced in All Clear, and a reread of that story would be recommended. WSFA Press recently published a limited edition of that story for Connie's Author GoH appearance at Capclave and still has some copies left at

Additionally, Connie recently provided some notes and a reference material for All Clear, like she did with Blackout, which is now available to read at
Andy Leighton
5. andyl
I would say that it needs quite a few changes. There were plenty of spots where Willis got things wrong, badly wrong - especially when travel was involved. Some will be easy fixes, some not so easy. There were a few problems with language too.
Ben H
6. dripgrind
Never mind the ridiculous research howlers - how can anyone stand the bumbling characters who struggle with the simplest, every day tasks, like meeting up with someone or getting on the right train, even before they go back in time? That's what made me metaphorically throw this book at the wall early in the first volume.

Connie Willis is a virtuoso of the "idiot plot". I don't expect academics to be super-competent secret agent types, but on the other hand, it doesn't make sense that these hopeless bumblers would be allowed to use a time machine in place of functioning adults.

What is the deal with that? Well, I read an interview with Willis where she told a story about how she was visiting the Imperial War Museum in London to do "research" when her husband or somebody bumped into a group of women who had experienced the Blitz, and he had to detain them until she rushed back to talk to them.

Most people who wanted to talk to Blitz survivors in person might have thought to arrange it ahead of time before travelling internationally, or, you know, corresponded with Blitz memoirists over the internet, but apparently Willis prefers to leave her research to chance encounters. My guess is that she is as scatterbrained as her characters, and just assumes everybody goes around in a constant fog of missed appointments and farcical business.

That doesn't explain why anybody else would want to read this dreck, let alone why it wins awards. It makes me sad.
S. S. White
7. kimu
I've rarely been as disappointed in a novel (or in this case, set of novels) as in Blackout/All Clear. I love Willis, I've read everything she's ever written, but this was just a giant clunker for me. First and foremost, I don't think there was enough here for two books. I truly can't understand why this wasn't edited down to a single book. I was also disappointed in the scholarship behind her description of the Blitz. I know it's a novel, but I felt this fell far short of the level of historical accuracy she presented in earlier works. Finally, normally I love her convoluted plots, but even reading the two books back to back, this plot was just a labyrinth that I never found my way out of - despite finishing both books. I wish I had stopped wasting my time reading this after I started the first book. I love this author; this is far from her best work.
S. S. White
8. UrsulaMinor
I'm not quite sure I understand the complaint that Willis accidentally ran into some blitz survivors while doing research, and seized the opportunity to talk to them. Making use of an unforseen opportunity - how terribly unprofessional of her. It's like complaining that someone asked the nearby librarian shelving books for directions instead of the one sitting at the front desk. Additionally, no where in this story did it state that she never again spoke to a single blitz survivor, in person or otherwise. There is some very serious projecting going on in this complaint.

As to the minute and mincing details of the novel(s) I cannot comment, being neither an expert on british WWII history, nor a survivor of said history. I honestly think, however, if people are bothering to point out small historical mistakes (or perhaps large ones in small plot points), then there is probably enough accuracy in there for people to think about holding it to the standard we would hold a non-fiction account of the blitz. Mistakes are only mistakes when people stop taking the book as pure fiction.

In any case, I quite enjoyed it. I too thought I had Willis' authorial formula down, and she surpized me on this one :)
Ben H
9. dripgrind
I'm only speculating about her story about bumping into the survivors. Just seems odd that she wouldn't arrange that in advance. It's not like there aren't volunteers at London's various Blitz attractions.

As for the howlers, they're not mincing details. I don't know much about daily life in WW2, but she has characters using the Jubilee line (that was built in the 1970s for the Queen's Silver Jubilee), using American terms, agonising about whether buses will show up for trips that they could easily walk... These are details that any Londoner would have picked up on straight away, and could have been checked in 5 minutes online. She clearly didn't show the manuscript to anyone British.
Bob Blough
10. Bob
I have read Connie Willis since "Daisy in the Sun" in 1979 when it was published in a small magazine called Galileo. I've loved her writing since that moment on, but there have been some decided clunkers along the way. Blackout/All Clear should have been one 500 page novel and I would have raved about it. It has everything I like about this author, but it should have had tighter editing. As it is now it is my least favorite of her novels - still lovely in many ways but I have to say I read them back to back and in doing so got so inundated with the same stuff over and over that in the middle of All Clear I had to stop (I was so bored), read another novel, and then could return to another of Polly's wondering if some little thing she did changed history. The first 3/4 of Blackout and the last 200 pages were terrific but the whole novel sagged badly in the middle.
Jonah Feldman
11. relogical
Just finished All Clear, and couldn't disagree more. It was an incredibly frustrating novel. The first two-thirds consisted of them vainly trying to find time travelers and failing every time.

But wait, you say! It turned out in the end that there was a reason for all the contrivances and failures and misunderstandings. The space-time continuum arranged it all! That makes it all better, right?

Uh, no. It was predictable from the start. If the myriad of contrivances didn't have an explanation, the book would be flat-out dumb, but it was still insulting to the reader to expect us to not figure out something was going on. I spotted all the hidden time travelers early simply because something had to be going on. And it was insulting to the characters, too. None of them figured out until the end that maybe time travel was arranging things a certain way, rather than angsting endlessly about how saving peoples' lives would somehow lead to Hitler winning? Despite the very different way time travel worked in To Say Nothing of the Dog?

Which was another problem. It's difficult to read the whimsical, clever, brilliant To Say Nothing of the Dog and then the pessimistic, gloomy Blackout and think that the characters' hopeless, bleak predictions will be true.

Instead we had to trudge through 1200 pages of the books to get the not-subtle-at-all message that the "real heroes" of World War II are the little people who "did their bit". An okay message, but a pointlessly long and needlessly complicated way of saying it.

There were good parts to the books. Some clever tricks of narration and plot, and a very dark, immersive atmosphere. But it was executed extremely poorly and insults the reader with its "time did it" reveals. I'm sorry, Connie Willis, but these books just didn't work.

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